SOCHI, Russia — The first time I ventured to the Black Sea coast, small groups of sand movers, tree planters, and fence builders greeted me. Or, more accurately, they stared as I ran along a new seaside promenade.
There were older-looking men pushing sand-filled wheelbarrows and older-looking women in ankle-deep soil planting shrubs. Similar scenes played out during runs on the days that followed, with electricians, welders, and street sweepers (actually men with small brooms) added to the mix.
Out of dire necessity, it appeared, Olympic preparations had hit the all-hands-on-deck phase.
Still, the 3-mile promenade that stretches from a cluster of media hotels to the Olympic Park became an increasingly popular destination as Friday’s Opening Ceremony neared.
Scenic views of blue water and black, rocky beaches attracted visitors and locals, while the Caucasus Mountains created an impressive backdrop. I saw other runners, along with walkers, cyclists, mopeds, and a soccer ball juggler all enjoy the area.
More than anything, the promenade, in the shadow of the Olympic Park and luxury hotel accommodations, brought to mind the grand, flawed ambitions of Vladimir Putin’s $51 billion Games, and all the problems and incongruities that came with them.
Running from one end of the promenade to the other, it felt as though I moved from a real Russia (or as real as it gets in a city furiously built for the Olympics and still a work in progress) to the modern face of Russia that Putin desperately wants to project to the world.
On the end nearest some media hotels, locals sit and smoke on seaside benches, stray dogs dig in the sand, and fishermen prop poles at the edge of the water. On the other end, the path passes within 100 feet of Fisht Stadium and terminates at a guarded fence in front of the athletes’ village, with national flags on buildings clearly visible.
In between, I happened upon all kinds of strange scenes as the Olympic hosts ramped up their landscaping and security efforts (and sometimes it seemed that was the order of priorities).
First, the sand movers.
Over the course of two days, I watched as a dozen men with wheelbarrows deposited black beach sand onto a long, narrow strip that bordered a nearby bicycle path, trying to give the area a more finished look. I’m not sure this was the original plan, but so it goes in Sochi.
The sand movers’ numbers were matched only by the tree planters who dug holes for small pines, then secured the trees in position with twine. And in places where they did not have time to plant trees, workers stretched banners with images of trees across temporary fences.
The tree banners fronted a cluster of sleek, glass-walled buildings that had a Bauhaus-style vibe. One appeared to be a fitness center, with treadmills and weights on the second floor and a two-story water slide that will drop people into an indoor pool once the building is finished.
It was odd to see such striking buildings less than a mile away from places that looked like unplanned patchwork. Outside the part-glass houses, building materials littered the yard, and each morning a construction worker monitored a controlled fire that sent acrid smoke toward the sea.
Electricians were still at work, too. It was slightly disconcerting when I passed groups of them, usually five men working on one lamppost or staring at one box of jumbled wires. These workers were tasked with installing security cameras on the lampposts, a job still under way with two days until the Opening Ceremony.
While the Russians will soon be watching my runs, and every other activity on the promenade (if they aren’t already), I was surprised at how freely people moved throughout the area. At one point, as I passed by the impressive venues for hockey and the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, I thought I’d reached the end of the road when I came to a piece of red-and-white police tape. I didn’t see any security officials, so I ducked underneath and kept running. I soon passed a couple of guards, but they didn’t stop me or even ask to see any credential (I was running with my press pass).
I got a quizzical look from another guard farther down and offered a chipper, “Hello,” and he responded, “Hey,” then waved as I kept going. At least I thought it was a wave, not a sign to stop. In any event, he didn’t chase me down.
By Wednesday, however, once technicians started setting up fireworks for the Opening Ceremony on the part of the path closest to Fisht Stadium, guards took more notice of passersby and kept people away from cordoned-off areas. They even posted small signs that announced an “Orchestra of Special Effects” and, helpfully, “No Smoking, Pyro Zone.”
Also on Wednesday, a military helicopter made a couple of passes close to the shore. By Thursday, a patrol boat dashed back and forth, no more than 100 feet from the coast.
The Opening Ceremony security concerns cut off some of the path’s more complete and carefully landscaped sections. The closer to the Olympic Park, the better the overall appearance and impression, at least if you’re looking toward the Black Sea. Mini-palm-style trees and sculptures dot grass rectangles. But between the promenade and the security perimeter that surrounds the venues sits a vast, muddy field.
And I wonder whether the sand movers, tree planters, and fence builders might be arriving soon.